Have you ever been to a place so beautiful, so pure and untainted by tourism that you wanted to keep it for yourself? I have. It’s called Guadalupe, Santander in Colombia.
Discover Colombia Off the Beaten Track
Guadalupe is a tiny town in the Santander region of Colombia. It is no longer a secret in Colombia though, and at the weekends bus-loads of visitors from Bucaramanga and the surrounding areas arrive – usually just for the day – then disappear as quickly as they came. During the week you would never know, and only a few backpackers pass through this idyllic town.
Guadalupe has just one tour guide; José Navarro. He is smart enough to know that tourism is a double-edged sword – he makes his living from it, but worries that too many visitors will ruin the town he loves so much. He still wants his young daughter to be able to enjoy this in ten or twenty years’ time, and for her children to enjoy it in thirty years’ time, while not biting the hand that feeds him.
There is still very little information on the town available on the internet, and when I was researching where to stay and how to book I was coming up short. There used to be even less to find, until Chris from See Colombia Travel Blog came to town about a year ago. His blog post about the town and its rivers saw José become the go-to-guy for Guadalupe, and put the town on the map for many Colombians. He dubbed Las Gachas “Santander’s Caño Cristales”, and once you’ve been, you will see why!
So far, at least, the town remains blissfully unchanged from its new-found “discovery”, but in 5, 10, 20 years I am sure that will begin to change. I hesitated about whether or not to write this post. I want to share how wonderful Guadalupe is, but I would hate to think I may contribute to the decreasing its charm and what made me fall in love with it in the first place!
Guadalupe, Santander: Las Gachas & What to do in Guadalupe
Guadalupe itself is just like a hundred other small towns in Santander – 10 square blocks or so of white washed houses and red tiled roofs, a splendid church and a pretty main square. Around Guadalupe though is where you will find the real treasures.
Shallow rivers running over red rock, forming natural jacuzzis perfect for bathing on a sunny day. Swimming holes, waterfalls, stunning countryside for exploring on foot or on horseback, and local people who don’t seem to care if you are there or not. All this creates a wonderful spot to discover – quiet and peaceful, authentic and beautiful.
Las Gachas is the name given to a natural spring whose water which runs along a stretch of flat rock where the flow of water has created pools or jacuzzis. The river is shallow, perhaps just a centimetre or two deep, and the rock shines a dark red beneath the water. The pools vary in depth, some several metres deep, most between 50 cm and 1 metre 50 cm. The water is clear (although muddies after heavy rain) and in most jacuzzis you can see the bottom – although the water gets cooler and darker the deeper it is!
Shallower pools are warmer as the sun heats the smooth rock, which in turn warms the water. On a bright sunny day, the water is warmest in the afternoon, but in June when I visited rain after lunch was common, so a morning visit to Las Gachas was best. Sandals are useful as the rocks get slippery underneath, and I was never quite sure what lurked at the bottom of the deep jacuzzis!
If you are in a couple you can find a pool big enough for two, or mini pools perfect for one. Larger pools fit families or groups – there is something for everyone here!
If you like a bit more adventure, at the end of the stretch of Jacuzzis the water finally drops into a cave which you can shimmy into and underneath the rock to emerge a couple of metres later. Close by, a steep, muddy climb down to a pretty waterfall is worth it if you’re brave enough, but it’s a difficult trip by yourself. In my case, José led the way and guided us through the tunnel and down to the waterfall. He was more than happy though to share the route with others who did want to go alone, and gave detailed instructions to anyone who asked.
I spent two lovely mornings here, wallowing in the pools and relaxing on the river banks. But Las Gachas aren’t the only attraction in Guadalupe. The following day I tagged along on another trip – this time to El Salitre and La Gloria– more bathing jacuzzis and a large natural pool perfect for swimming. It was another pleasant walk, maybe 15 – 20 minutes strolling through fields and along the path to reach the river, and then following the river along El Salitre to get to La Gloria.
I enjoyed both, but my favourite place was Las Gachas, so I returned for a second visit. This time I loaned a horse from José’s cousin, to follow the stone trail that is the usual route to Las Gachas, perhaps a 30 minute hike on foot. Horse riding in Colombia is so beautiful, It almost felt like home, apart from the sunshine! Green fields, blue skies and the rocking gait of my horse made my second trip to Las Gachas even more special.
Guadalupe, Santander: Practical Information
Guadalupe is off the beaten track in the truest sense of the world. I actually hate the phrase, but in this case it really does apply for this tiny town in the middle of Colombia. Reaching Guadalupe requires a 5-6 hour bus journey from Bogota to Oiba, then an hour in the back of a jeep on a windy, mostly unpaved road, which only runs sporadically through the day. It isn’t that difficult to get to, but it’s not a place that gets much ‘passing trade’!
Where to stay in Guadalupe
I stayed at the Hotel Colonial, one of 3 hostals in town, and $20,000 pesos a night here got me a private room with wifi, TV and hot water (not all the rooms have it, so ask when you book). For less than $7 a night it was clean, and comfortable, and one of the cheapest and nicest places I stayed in Colombia. (I paid the same amount for a shared hostel dorm bed in San Gil).
José, the guide, also runs a hostal and restaurant with simple, excellent food. It is pretty much the only place in town where you can get a full breakfast and a meal at night (aside from a few fast food places & morning bakeries). A breakfast of scrambled eggs, arepa, cheese and bread served with a cup of hot chocolate or tea will set you back around 8,000 pesos (approx. $2.70), and a good set lunch of soup, grilled meat, rice and salad with a juice is just 10,000 pesos ($3.35). Dinner is similar fare, just pop in and ask what’s on the menu tonight.
If you arrive here during the week, there is no need to book anywhere in advance. None of the hostals have websites that I could find – a facebook page perhaps, but the best way to book if you prefer to do so is by phone. The directory of tourism for Guadalupe is here, and has the three options listed.
How to get to Guadalupe
I was coming South through Colombia, and came to Guadalupe from San Gil. I took a mini bus to Socorro for 4000 pesos, then a bus to Oiba with Copetran for 10,000 pesos, and from Oiba the 6,500 peso jeep bus to Guadalupe. This did feel like a bit of a mission, but if you’re coming north the journey is easier from Bogota as most buses will pass through Oiba. The jeeps to Guadalupe are infrequent, and tend to fill up, so if you can time your journey to arrive perhaps 15-30 minutes before it leaves, that would be ideal. As at June 2016 these were the times of the jeeps from Guadalupe to Oiba, and the reverse trip, but these may well change.
And a final reminder that, wherever you go in Guadalupe, please take all your rubbish with you, José was picking up litter as we went, it’s unfortunate that he had to do it, but another testament to his love for this wonderful place.
You can read Chris’s See Colombia blog post on Guadalupe here: Santander’s Caño Cristales – The Rivers of Guadalupe
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